Feminist Bait and Corporate Switch: Pro-Woman Marketing Isn’t Progress

photo credit: Daniel Norton [ CC BY-ND 2.0 ],  via Flickr

photo credit: Daniel Norton [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

When institutional investment firm State Street erected the Fearless Girl statue opposite the Charging Bull in 2017, it became an instant tourist attraction, a viral social media sensation, and proof, to some at least, that women’s interests were beginning to be taken seriously by Wall Street. But look beneath the hood, and you’ll find that State Street isn’t the feminist firm it so hopes Fearless Girl would suggest it to be. According to Fortune and Morningstar, between 2015 and 2018 — when State Street was planning, executing, and basking in the positive praise of Fearless Girl — it voted no or abstained from voting on eight out of ten gender-diversity shareholder resolutions faced by its gender diversity index exchange-traded fund (aptly named — you guessed it — SHE). Among the shareholder resolutions State Street voted against were disclosures on pay equity at Mastercard, American Express, and Aetna. That’s not exactly feminist. Fearless Girl was a brilliant PR move that ultimately amounted to window dressing. It’s been two years since her arrival, and issues of gender parity in corporate America are no better, and, worse, they’re obscured by faux-feminist marketing.

When brands highlight their products as women-celebratory, they need to check if their organizational house is in order. All too often, these are simply marketing ploys masking what’s under the surface — a deceptive camouflage designed to convince the consumer that the company is altruistic, egalitarian, and free of patriarchal baggage. GenderAvengers have learned that it takes real, conscious work to dismantle entrenched patriarchy. In fact, GA founder Gina Glantz wrote about how putting diverse faces on promotional materials is frequently used as camouflage to mask poor gender balance at events. Looking better does not mean doing better — and faux-feminist ad campaigns aren’t going to cut it.

Take Nike, the publicly traded sportswear giant that earlier this year made waves with its ‘Dream Crazier’ video. The tribute to women in sports, narrated by Serena Williams, has netted over nine million views on YouTube. It’s a powerful anthem, sure. But it’s not indicative of Nike’s attitudes towards women. It doesn’t take much googling to learn that in 2018, women working at Nike came forward to reveal a corporate culture rife with sexual harassment and gender discrimination. There was tremendous fallout: top male executives left the company and women who’d previously worked at Nike sued, alleging they were paid less than male colleagues and received fewer promotional opportunities. Litigation is still ongoing. And Nike isn’t alone in facing lawsuits filed by former women employees. On Equal Pay Day this year, women who worked at Disney and Netflix sued their former employers, alleging, respectively, that Disney pays women less than men and that a Netflix employee was fired because she announced she was pregnant. So much for family-friendly entertainment.

Striking statues and viral videos are not corporate feminism. They’re not progress, and we shouldn’t confuse them as such. So, next time you see a company deploy some flashy pro-women marketing, pull back the curtain and start asking questions. How are women represented in senior leadership? Do the company’s policies support women throughout their careers? Because looking better is easy for companies, but actually doing better? That’s hard work, and it’s what we demand.

Sarah Harris

Sarah Harris is a writer and the founder of Skin Stories, a weekly email newsletter that shares stories of people with chronic skin conditions living full lives. She lives in northern New York with her husband, 2 cats, 3 chickens, and a very grumpy llama.